diamond geezer

 Monday, January 23, 2006

Streets of London
Electric Avenue - Eddy Grant (1983)


"We're gonna rock down to Electric Avenue
And then we'll take it higher"

Turn left out of Brixton tube station, walk a few paces past the Iceland supermarket and stop when you reach the dodgy geezer selling cheap fags for a couple of quid a packet. There, to your left, is the narrow market street of Electric Avenue. It curves sharply round towards the railway viaduct, hemmed in between tall Victorian terraces like a deep urban canyon. It's not a long street, barely a couple of minutes' walk from end to end, but you'd be hard-pushed to walk that fast when the market's in full swing. Few streets in London have quite so much character compressed into such a short space.

Electric Avenue is so named because, back in the 1860s, it was the first street in the South London area to be lit by new-fangled electricity. The shops in their tall terraces were erected in 1888, and Electric Avenue rapidly became the fashionable retail centre of Victorian Brixton. Gents in top hats and ladies in crinolines came to buy daily comestibles from the butcher's counter or the baker's van. Well-scrubbed shops lined up along both sides of the street, with the pavements covered by a continuous row of elegant iron canopies. And so the good life continued, until wartime bomb damage wiped out the southwestern terrace, and the buildings' remaining ironwork fell gradually into disrepair and was removed. Electric Avenue is still very much a shopping street, but its importance and prestige are long gone.
Full pictorial history of Electric Avenue (from urban75)

"Working so hard like a soldier
Can't afford a thing on TV
Deep in my heart I abhor ya
Can't get food for them kid, good God"

Can't afford a thing on TV? No problem, because nobody down Electric Avenue sells anything that might have been advertised on TV anyway. And you'd have to be in dire financial difficulties not to be able to afford the food on sale here either. Fruit and vegetables appear to be the top seller, many of them with a Caribbean flavour, reflecting the area's post-Windrush population. Stalls and shopfronts are piled high with plantains (five for a quid), pineapples and coco yams, as well as boxes full of mysterious, white, knobbly globes (which I still can't identify). Several butchers shops remain, most of them advertising halal meat, and each staffed by a crowd of eager young men in blood-stained aprons. Here scrawny plucked chickens hang limply from rails above the counter - this is 'best boiling chicken', apparently, and a real bargain at three birds for a fiver.

Other stalls sell West Indian sauces and Rasta-themed clothing, as well as the usual market mix of mobile phone covers, cheap cleaning products and suspiciously counterfeit DVDs. A multi-ethnic mix of shoppers throng the narrow pavements, with blue plastic carrier bags and tartan trolleys their receptacles of choice. Pensive pensioners pick patiently through piles of peaches, or else search out a nice bit of fish for their supper. An old man in a tall woolly hat stands smiling in front of an nail salon, the portable hi-fi hanging from his left hand pumping out muffled reggae into the busy street. And it's not difficult to scratch the surface and spot the illicit black market trading going on here, particularly every time some anonymous bloke approaches you muttering "skunk, weed, skunk, weed" under his breath.

"Now in the street there is violence
And a lots of work to be done
No place to hang out our washing
And I can't blame all on the sun, oh no"

The most violent incident in the history of Electric Avenue occured in April 1999. Extremist loner David Copeland kicked off a fortnight of terror in the capital by leaving a bag containing a homemade nailbomb beside a busy bus stop in Brixton High Street. Market traders were suspicious and moved the sports holdall into Electric Avenue, where it suddenly exploded seconds later injuring 39 people. A plaque on the wall of the Iceland supermarket commemorates the victims, and the united strength of the local community. During my visit I was a little perturbed to be targeted by earnest churchfolk standing on the very spot where the explosion took place. Presumably they thought my soul might be suffering from "disapointments", "panic attacks" and "inner emptyness", and that their miraculous tales of healing might motivate me to join their chain of prayer. Also no. Shady deals and petty crime may be rife down Electric Avenue, but the street's not that depressing. But Eddy Grant was right about one thing - whatever you do don't try to hang out your washing, because the pigeons will almost certainly spoil it.


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